Due to the complex structural conditions of the online sphere, such as anonymity, individual online actions may become more disinhibited and less restrained by traditional norms. Thus, meaning that individuals have the ability to abuse this structure in order perform criminal activities. Anonymity is a pinnacle in Internet culture that helps move forward this idea that we can share and have freedom of speech of one’s true voice. The purpose of anonymity is for the concept of privacy and protection of self-disclosure. However, communicating anonymously hinders accountability of information that is spread.
Until individuals, corporations or even the government can be held accountable, we lose all the recourse to law and risk true social justice. The darkest aspect of technology, even darker than our continuous exposure to online fraud and theft, is the lack of responsibility and accountability that the anonymity of a virtual sphere provides. The disconnectedness of being constantly connected manifests in the tendency for human beings to say things in an internet chatroom or on a comment string associated with a news story that they would never, ever say in the presence of a real-life human being.
Lack of Accountability Affects Social Justice
In an environment where anonymity is put into practice, and the fear of punishment is almost non-existent, people seem to find it easier to justify their negative actions. It has been seen countless times that people act out way more often when they can hide behind a pseudonym which is referred to as the online disinhibition effect. According to Zeynep Tufekci, online platforms have rules that are governed by the actual company, but when it comes down to the culture and norms of the platform, they are created by the users and evolve the community (Tufekci, 2017). Researchers have found that regular people can be influenced to engage in trolling by factors such as negative moods and the context of a discussion (Veliz, 2018).
So, if a social media site has a history of members harassing others that is the toxic environment in which the users have made it a norm. We have allowed this toxic internet culture to progress because we haven’t done anything to stop it. What we do instead is call the person a troll and go about our day.
In order to achieve true social justice, to erase unfairness, whether involving individuals, groups, or the state, requires that those responsible for the problems to be able to be held accountable. The United States is a democratic society that thrives off in being seen as a “free and fair society.” Problems occur when there is some sort of imbalance between the two. So, in order for this “free and fair society” to be true, justice must exist and be seen to exist.
Social justice and civic engagement can be interconnected in an online sphere and anonymity can affect that. Engaging in an online space gives a person a sense of empowerment, however this concept can become dicey (Gordon, E., Baldwin-Philippi, J., & Balestra, M, 2013). I am by no means saying that internet is not a great tool in spreading equality. I believe that it provides a platform for an oppressed individual to get their voices heard without being identified. However sometimes theses opinions can be met with crude comments that criticizes that person for speaking up. Empowerment can tie into self-confidence and with anonymity an individual’s self-confidence is at an all-time high, because there is not a true fear for backlash and identifying that person is not an easy process. As mention before people find it easier to justify their actions in an online setting so if you have double the boost in confidence, one could feel as though they can say whatever and do whatever they want. With online platforms such as forums or social networking, it is easier to create a community of like-minded people who then continue to engage this idea I would like to call “negative empowerment”.
Social justice ultimately requires accountability, but because of internet policies it makes it difficult to know from where and from whom these comments are coming. Because of this, we tend to shift the blame for online attacks onto the victims, which is a serious step backwards for a democratic society. There are some who suggest that a society whom relies on good will and conscience of the people would be unlikely to succeed in ensuring justice. However, it is still impossible to try to govern and regulate what a person says and leans to being unconstitutional. While we should rely on people’s will and self-consciousness, there is no reason to completely take away accountability in order to obtain protection of identity. There is this quote that I really like that states “Good men are bound by conscience and liberated by accountability.” Freedom doesn’t mean that there is a lack of accountability.
A Gateway to Crime
Accountability is the requirement that those responsible for any misconduct be identified and brought to justice, with anonymity that is difficult and nearly unfeasible. The sole concept of being anonymous is so that a person cannot be identified for protection and security purposes. This now opens the door to many forms of criminal behavior, while leaving victims and society helpless, specially from a legal standpoint. A research was done that showcased that anonymity offered in digital communication can influence an individual to engage in cyber aggression (Kowalski, & Limber, 2007). Crimes, that involve hacking, virus coding, harassment, and identity theft are increasing day by day. These types of damages are things that can’t be fixed with money and result in ruined reputations, loss of trust, and a decline in basic human morals and ethics.
Where anonymous communication really takes a negative and detrimental turn is when, the state and those individuals comprising it, participates. Things such as, highly sensitive material could be leaked, blackmailing, elections could be rigged, and there could be plans made for political opponents to be attacked or even eliminated, all with no consequences. Distrusting a government accountable to the people is one thing, facilitating a government completely unaccountable is quite another. While there is an importance to know that officials already use anonymity for protection and to mask sensitive material, what I am focusing on is when they use it illegally. Those involved know it is wrong and know the penalties if they are caught, thus deterring all but the most desperate or naive. This lack of accountability throws the legal responsibility back upon the providers of the cyberspaces and transforms them into censors, a role none of them wishes to play.
Criminals on the Internet feel safer committing their criminal acts because of their ability to conceal or alter their identities (Habib,2004). This false sense of security can be their downfall, but at the same time it can be their vehicle to fuel fantasies, to fulfill information glut desires, or even feed a need for power. Around the age of 13 I was part of online virtual world for kids. I was friends with this person who ended up sending me death threats and saying racial slurs to the point that I was broken.
When I realized what had happened I just ended up bawling my eyes out to my mother. She then contacted the company that preceded to tell her that they were not liable for what happened, and because identification was based off pseudonyms there wasn’t much that we or anyone else could possibly do. It is tricky to enforce laws due to the fact that privacy policies are enacted. Anonymity is a safety net for criminals and a cage for victims. Why should an individual care about what they say or do if they know they can get away with it. Some people don’t have a guilty conscience, or a moral compass therefore wouldn’t be emotionally affected. Anonymity is essentially a loophole for online crimes.
An argument for anonymity being necessary is that anonymity is essential to act on the 1st Amendment. While that may be true we live in a democratic society that is based the idea of justice. Accountability lies in the very center and is crucial to be able to participate and function in a fair and free society. Removing it will not only encourage people to lie, it will also lead to justifying crime thus increasing numbers of victims who are unable to do anything about it because no one is liable. The government was responsible for neutralizing freedom of speech therefore anonymity came into play to protect that right.
When we end blaming victims or dismiss hate speech as a person just “trolling” we ignore the achievements of social movements and instead we end up protecting those who are making the internet a toxic environment. We need to start taking these comments and threats seriously, just because they are online does not mean that they are any less destructive and harmful to individuals.
What is actually happening is that it is doing more harm than it is good. Concerned citizens can use the improved communications of the Internet to participate more fully in government. Our freedom comes at the price of vigilance. If we abdicate our responsibilities, we have only ourselves to blame. Moving to a more active civic engaging form of democratic government is a more stable option than that offered by anonymity. Accountability, openness, and honesty may sound like old-fashioned morality, but these traits have stood us in good stead. The problem isn't anonymity; it's accountability. If someone isn't accountable, then knowing his name doesn't help.
Gordon, E., Baldwin-Philippi, J., & Balestra, M. (2013). Why we engage: How theories of human behavior contribute to our understanding of civic engagement in a digital era. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2343762
Habib, J. (2004). Cyber Crime and Punishment: Filtering Out Internet Felons. Fordham Intellectual Property, Media and Entertainment Law Journal,14(4).
Kiston, R. (2019, January 14). What is Cyberbullying? Why Do People Cyberbully? Retrieved from https://www.psychbytes.com/what-is-cyberbullying/
Kowalski, R. M., & Limber, S. P. (2007). Electronic Bullying Among Middle School Students. Journal of Adolescent Health,41(6), 22-30. doi:10.1037/t23421-000
Shinder, D. (2011, January 26). What makes cybercrime laws so difficult to enforce. Retrieved from https://www.techrepublic.com/blog/it-security/what-makes-cybercrime-laws...
Suler, J. (2004, July 28). The Online Disinhibition Effect. Retrieved from https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/1094931041291295
Tufekci, Z. (2017). Twitter and tear gas: The power and fragility of networked protest. New Haven: YALE University Press.
Véliz, C. (2018). Online masquerade: Redesigning the internet for free speech through the use of pseudonyms. Journal of Applied Philosophy. doi:10.1111/japp.12342